LAGOS—Avenging lynch mobs have seized and burned alive more than 20 suspected kidnappers over the past month in and around the Nigerian city of Lagos where terrified residents have taken extreme measures to stamp out ritual child sacrifices, police and witnesses said.
The mutilated corpses of the victims of black magic ceremonies—which turn up on an almost daily basis in the fields and on the roadsides of southwest Nigeria—have now been joined by piles of ash and blackened flesh where alleged gang members were set ablaze. Police and religious leaders fear that both the sacrifices and the revenge attacks are a sign of a dangerous breakdown in social order, but gruesome media reports of the latest outrages are feeding a climate of fear and few here trust the authorities to regain control.
“I support instant justice for suspects. If we hand them over to the police, they will buy their freedom and then become more adamant and daring in their actions,” said a 22-year-old apprentice mechanic from the Lagos suburb of Ikorodu, who said he had taken part in a vigilante killing.
A police officer confirmed witness reports that in Ikorodu four suspected child kidnappers were grabbed by a mob, beaten senseless, doused in petrol and set on fire. On Oct. 9 in the farming town of Otta, 60 kilometers north of the city, two more suspects were killed and five more captured and handed to police after a 14-year-old boy escaped from kidnappers and ran to his parents, who mobilized a gang of youths.
Television and newspaper reports of the incident showed torn dresses, school uniforms and satchels littering the kidnappers’ hideout; evidence, it was said, of child sacrifice. One of the suspects, 46-year-old Ibukun Okelola, reportedly told journalists: “I cannot remember how many people I have killed, but they cannot be less than nine students.”
Many in southwestern Nigeria believe in the power of juju, an occult blend of mystic ritual and traditional African belief. Some believe that by sacrificing humans and using their body parts in ceremonies they will become rich and powerful.
Last weekend, four more suspects met their deaths in the Oke-Odo and Cement districts of Lagos. On Monday, amid mounting hysteria, an 11-year-old boy was burned to death after being accused of trying to kidnap a child. Afterward, Nigeria’s police chief Inspector General Sunday Ehindero appealed for calm. “Members of the public should not take the laws into their hand. We will arrest those who do so. They could have lynched or burnt innocent people,” he said. But many in Nigeria feel that the mob attacks are the inevitable result of the notoriously corrupt and incompetent police force failing to protect the community from the ritualists.